Egyptian president rescinds expanded powers, but opposition calls it a ‘stunt’

Referendum on new constitution still scheduled to take place December 15; army warns of ‘disastrous consequences’ if crisis continues

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi (photo credit: AP/Maya Alleruzzo)
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi (photo credit: AP/Maya Alleruzzo)

After a two-and-a-half week standoff with his political opponents, and a surge of deadly clashes between police and protesters, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has annulled a decree granting himself expanded powers, following a meeting with other political leaders in Cairo, Islamist politician Mohammad Salim Al-Awa said Saturday night.

However, Al-Awa said, Morsi would be going ahead with a December 15 referendum on a draft for a new Egyptian constitution. Earlier, Egypt’s prime minister, Hisham Qandil, said in an interview with an Egyptian television station that the president was prepared to postpone the referendum.

Al-Awa, an Islamist thinker and a former presidential candidate in Egypt, was a member of the committee that formulated the decree granting Morsi absolute powers and immunity from judicial oversight. The Egyptian president announced the new decree on November 22.

Al-Awa told reporters that the government had drafted a new decree, consisting of five clauses, which, among other things, mandate an investigation into the circumstances of the deaths of protesters in the violent clashes that were sparked by the publication of the original decree.

The decision is unlikely to appease the opposition, however, since it recommends the referendum go ahead as scheduled. Morsi’s initial declaration was to be rendered ineffective anyway after the constitution is approved.

Gamal Eid, a human rights lawyer, said the recommendations to rescind some powers were a “play on words” since Morsi had already achieved the desired aim of finalizing the draft constitution and protecting it over the past weeks from a judicial challenge.

Bassem Sabry, a writer and activist, said the changes to the declaration were a “stunt” that would embarrass the opposition but not resolve the problem.

“In the end, Morsi got everything he wanted,” he said.

“He protected the constituent assembly, the draft constitution and rammed into a referendum when people will have no time to study it against what he had promised before, which is that the document won’t be put into a referendum without sufficient national consensus,” Sabry said.

The majority of the 54 members of the committee were Islamists and members of the constitutional panel that drafted the disputed charter. But the main opponents were not present at the meeting, which lasted over 10 hours.

The deepening political rift in Egypt had triggered an earlier warning Saturday from the military of “disastrous consequences” if the constitutional crisis isn’t resolved through dialogue.

It was the first political statement by the military since the newly elected Morsi sidelined it from political life.

The army said serious dialogue is the “best and only” way to overcome the conflict, which has left the country deeply divided between Islamist supporters of the president and his mostly secular opponents.

“Anything other than (dialogue) will force us into a dark tunnel with disastrous consequences, something which we won’t allow,” the military said in a statement broadcast on state TV and attributed to an unnamed military official.

The new recommendations by the panel also suggest that if the referendum is not passed, Morsi will call for the election of a new drafting committee within three months, a prospect that would prolong the transition.

Such a provision also would likely make it harder for the opposition to market a “no” vote in the referendum. Opponents say the draft constitution disregards the rights of women and Christians, and enshrines a central role for Islamic law.

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